Saturday, August 06, 2016

Review: Union Avenue Opera's "Tosca" gets the passion right

L-R: March Schapman, Matthew Edwardsen,
Neil Nelson
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This weekend, Union Avenue Opera concludes its very strong production of Puccini's 1900 political melodrama Tosca. Moved from its original 1800 setting to 1940-where the underlying conflict between autocracy and democracy works perfectly well, thanks very much-this is a dramatically arresting show and well worth your time.

Anyone seeking an example of how an operatic classic can have contemporary resonance need look no further than the character of Baron Scarpia, the villain in. A textbook case of how an elaborate display of public piety can be a false front for lust and violence, Scarpia also provides us one of the great moments of Italian opera in the final scene of Act I as he plots the seduction and betrayal of Tosca while the crowd celebrates High Mass. It's a spectacular scene-one of the best examples of dramatic irony you'll ever see-and also a great argument for the separation of Church and State.

Matthew Edwardsen and
Elena O'Connor
The story of Tosca is a mix of passion, deceit, and violence typical of the verismo school of opera, with its emphasis on human emotions, both noble and destructive. Here, they're mostly destructive: the title character's overwhelming desire for her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, results in a jealousy that undoes them both; Scarpia's obsessive lust for Tosca motivates him to break every moral code he claims to support, and eventually results in his death at her hands; and Cavaradossi's passion for human freedom leads him to shelter the rebel Angelotti, which results in a firing squad for the former and suicide for the latter. It's not a cheerful story, Rome wasn't a cheerful place in either 1800 or 1940.

Any successful production of Tosca demands a strong and compelling Scarpia, and it certainly has one in bass-baritone Neil Nelson, who was so outstanding in the somewhat similar role of Di Luna in Winter Opera's Il Trovatore back in March. He's got big, powerful voice that can purr as well as rant and that easily delivered even the lowest notes with authority.

And then there's Elena O'Connor, making a brilliant Union Avenue debut as Tosca. Praised by the Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle has for her "lustrous powerhouse soprano and wonderfully over-the-top theatrics", she's a striking and magnetic stage presence-which is exactly what Tosca should be. She made me believe Scarpia could be completely captivated by her. And the scene in which she stabs and then curses Scarpia as he dies was entirely satisfying.

Her scenes with tenor Matthew Edwardsen, who was such credible Pinkerton in the company's Madama Butterfly three years ago, had real chemistry and passion. Edwardsen, for his part, has a bold, dramatic voice that ran into trouble only in the very loudest passages. And his acting is spot on.

Union Avenue's Tosca has one more performance tonight at 8 p.m. You should definitely catch it if you can; this is one of the better productions of this opera I have seen, and that covers a lot of ground. Check out Union Avenue's web site for details.

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